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To improve learner results, we need to stop crossing our fingers and start doing this

Sometimes, teaching reminds me of the legend of Sisyphus.

In Greek mythology, we learn about Sisyphus, the king of Corinth. He was known for his trickery, but it was his cheating of death that infuriated the gods most. Zeus punished Sisyphus for his death-defying tricks by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only - naturally - for it to roll back down every time it neared the top. He was doomed to repeat this action for eternity.

Teaching can sometimes feel the same.     

We start at the bottom of the hill, paving the way to the top with meticulously designed lesson plans, supporting resources, and formal assessments of high quality. We put all our effort in, to push that massive boulder of knowledge up the hill.     

Along the way, we ensure our learners are still on track, with questions like: “Do you all understand?” and “Are you with me?” In response, we see heads nodding. The top of the hill takes the form of a formal assessment. But once we start marking, the boulder rolls right back down to the bottom. Defeated, we capture disappointing results, and come next term: We start pushing up that boulder again…

“Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein.

Unlike Sisyphus, we are not doomed to repeat the same task for eternity. We can change our course to get that boulder right to the top. It’s called Data Driven Education.

Why do we need data-driven education?

Heather Morlock boldly and accurately stated, "If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn." But how do I know whether learners are learning the way I teach? Should I wait for June examinations or end-of-the-year finals? The reality is that by the time we are done marking and completing question analyses, it is already too late.

If we only measure whether students have learned what has been taught on a monthly or termly basis, we are solely relying on our opinion or the nodding of heads to predict their success. In a country where quality teaching is desperately needed, it is too risky and too important to make estimated guesses. We need proof; evidence; we need data. We need to be driven by data.

“Data” might seem intimidating and like another “to do” on the already too long list, so what does it entail? 

What it is and how it works:

A teacher refers to the CAPS or Annual Teaching Plan to determine what needs to be taught, which becomes the objective of their lesson. Using a data-orientated approach begins during the planning phase: Instead of identifying what will be taught, we should also determine what learners should be able to master by the end of the lesson. Once we have identified that, each skill can be further unpacked to map out a detailed plan.

Data driven education - in practise:

For example, while teaching a new piece of content in a maths class: To reduce a fraction to its simplest form by canceling.

  • During the first lap, the teacher will ensure that their learners can find the highest common factor of both a numerator and a denominator.
  • The second lap will be used to monitor that all learners can divide the numerator and denominator by the highest common factor.
  • The last lap will monitor that all scholars wrote the answer in its simplest form.
  • After teaching the content and identified skills, learners will have time to apply the newly gained knowledge during independent practice, providing the teacher with the ideal opportunity to track responses. 
  • The teacher circulates with a class list and the teacher exemplar, capturing whether scholars show mastery or not.
  • From this, we have evidence; a narrative of where our students are on the hill. We can make a plan for the boulder, we can reroute and thus, there is more than one possible turnoff; more than one push to get them to the top of the hill!
  • If a number of learners are making the same error, the teacher can provide batch feedback to the class by briefly interrupting the independent practice and explaining the common error the teacher has noticed and how they can go about fixing the misconception.
  • If it is only a few students, individual feedback will be most impactful: It is vital that we do not give our scholars the answer but rather ask guiding questions so that they, themselves, can reach the correct conclusion.
  • Should the majority of the class be struggling, the question to ask is, “Where did the misconception come from?” This will determine how a teacher will reteach: Do the learners need to see a model of the thought process? Will guided discourse be more impactful where the class can work through additional examples to deepen their understanding?
For learner results to improve, we can’t be crossing our fingers

If we welcome data into our classrooms, we are far from running out of options and aren’t aimlessly and endlessly pushing the boulder up the hill, fingers crossed that it won’t come tumbling down this time.

For learner results to truly improve, our teaching needs to be responsive. We need to stop rolling the boulder in exactly the same way, day after day. The most effective teachers and leaders know when teaching is working, and when it isn’t, they fix it. Let’s fix it. 

Renate Van der Westhuizen 

Winner, Excellence in Secondary School Leadership, National Teaching Awards 

Principal: Apex High School